On Getting Disabled

We talk about the art of getting naked or of flower arranging, but we never speak of the art of becoming disabled. In America disability is discussed simply as rehabilitation, as if living is no more complicated than lighting a stove.

The art of getting disabled is a necessary subject. When we look to history we find examples of this art everywhere. Disabled makers stand against loss.  They make something of difference. When traveling in France Thomas Jefferson broke his wrist. A surgeon set the break badly. A major facet of his life was changed forever.  He was forced to put aside his treasured violin. In turn he took up long, slow, leisurely horseback rides as a meditative practice.

Blind people don’t necessarily need dogs. White cane travel is a very fine way to get around. But I say guide dog travel is an art. It’s a means toward living much as Jefferson learned to live. Moving in consort with an excellent animal is one way to make a life. Art is mysterious. Some find a path to a certain form. Some find an unlike form.

Oh I know Jefferson sang to his horses. He was very fond of singing. Moving in consort requires it I think.

It’s hard to imagine singing to a white cane.

Do you need to sing to live well? No. I’ve a great good friend who is nonspeaking. But in turn his whole body is music.

My deaf friends sing.

“You got to keep something moving all the time,” said Huddle Ledbetter, otherwise known as “Leadbelly” when asked how he played the 12 string guitar.

Many of my wheelchair pals are dancers.

Several of my disabled friends are comedians.

We crackle, zip, exhale, inhale, sport with our fingers, flap, jump, pop wheelies, and jingle with harnesses.

Resourceful life is practiced. Sometimes it is silly. Art can and often should be frivolous. With permission from curators at the Museum of Modern Art I was once allowed to spin Marcel DuChamp’s famous wheel, a bicycle fork with front wheel mounted upside-down on a wooden stool. DuChamp was a DaDaist. He made art by placing things side by side that did not formally belong together. A MOMA staff member handed me a pair of latex gloves and I pulled them on and with my first guide dog Corky watching beside me, I reached out and gave DuChamp’s aluminum wheel a spin. “This is the steering wheel of my life,” I thought. Eccentric motion. A dog walking life not always understood by others, but simple and smoothly elegant.

No you don’t need a dog, or any other animal if you have a disability. Solo life contains its own joys.

I certainly know some blind folks who would say I’m over the top talking about art in the context of service dog life. I know people who say a guide dog is just a mobility aid. I’m fine with that. As long as they’re kind to their dog machines I’ve nothing to say about this view. To each his own. I have friends who don’t like poetry. I don’t think their worlds are harmed by their disinterest. All I know for sure is what a guide dog can do. Though the stationary wheel of your life seemed forever stopped, she says give it a turn. You’ll be surprised where the imagination can take you.

 

 

George Washington’s “Sweetlips”

It’s a game I have, as a means of cheering myself, to think of famous people and their dogs.

In respect to this pastime I can’t think of any of our forebears who affords me greater pleasure than George Washington who truly loved his dogs. You can read about our first President and his canine companions here. I especially love the following:

Imagine the Father of Our Country whistling for his hound, Sweetlips…or rubbing the ears of his coach dog, a Dalmatian named Madame Moose. When it came to pooches, George Washington had a sense of humor – and a tender side, too.

During his lifetime, Washington kept almost every group of dog recognized today by the American Kennel Club. Records show that he owned French hounds Tipsy, Mopsey, Truelove, and Ragman – just to name a few. Greyhounds, Newfoundlands, Briards, and various types of spaniels, terriers, and toys also called the estate home.

And they too probably had awesome names.

To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body: A Disability Perspective on Rachel Dolezal

I have been trying to think magnanimously about Rachel Dolezal’s self declared blackness, a venture that many who write critically about embodiment and society ought to attempt, if for no other reason than to interpret the difference between an emotional reaction to a cultural circumstance and a nuanced reading of the current moment. I can’t help but recall Jacques Lacan’s observation that to live in a body is to experience fragmentation, moreover, according to the principle of corps morcele, every man and woman lives out his or her imaginary anatomy. The self-consciousness of embodiment is one form of hysteria and it’s fair to say that in a culture where eating disorders, gender dysphoria, and the abjections that accompany physical flaws are legion, Rachel Dolezal’s story isn’t unique. The 24-7 news cycle insists we think so, demanding indignation because her black identification is merely a ruse. This is fair enough. It’s also fair to argue, as many have, that her “act” was possible only by virtue of white privilege. Others say that by pretending to be a woman of color she stole public positions that ought, rightfully, to have gone to an authentic black person. Yes, the story is a mess. Add the long history of miscegenation and “one drop” jurisprudence and Dolezal’s act appears cynical and perhaps even cruel.

I’m a blind person. For many years I tried to prove I could see because my parents said appearing sighed was crucial for me. My story isn’t unique. Many people with disabilities struggle to accept their bodies. Beyond acceptance one learns about the body politic—the values assigned to bodies are often the products of sinister histories. But I digress. I know a little something about pretending to be someone else, and I know a good deal about not liking the corps morcele. Did I do damage to people back in the days when I pretended I could see? I think so. I made other people hostages to my circumstance—I needed people to accompany me even as I feigned capacities of self-determination I didn’t possess. Deceit isn’t good for the deceiver and it pollutes his surroundings.

And so, back to my earlier point—Lacan’s really—that all of us live in our imaginary anatomies. These visions can be strictly compensatory, like thinking you’re athletic when you’re not. Or telling yourself you can see when in fact you can’t. Or they can be artfully constructed and exceed simple escapist desires. Who would not say Ru Paul isn’t authentically alive and dazzling?

Let us all play act at being one another. There is more health in constructive imaginations of embodiment than there is in culturally enforced denial. We need new public narratives for Lacan’s fragmented anatomies.

What if we applauded people for telling us how they really feel on the inside?

In his famous essay “To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body” the French philosopher Felix Guattari wrote:

No matter how much it proclaims its pseudo-tolerance, the capitalist system in all its forms (family, school, factories, army, codes, discourse…) continues to subjugate all desires, sexuality, and affects to the dictatorship of its totalitarian organization, founded on exploitation, property, male power, profit, productivity…Tirelessly it continues its dirty work of castrating, suppressing, torturing, and dividing up our bodies in order to inscribe its laws on our flesh, in order to rivet to our subconscious its mechanisms for reproducing this system of enslavement.

With its throttling, its stasis, its lesions, its neuroses, the capitalist state imposes its norms, establishes its models, imprints its features, assigns its roles, propagates its program… Using every available access route into our organisms, it insinuates into the depths of our insides its roots of death. It usurps our organs, disrupts our vital functions, mutilates our pleasure, subjugates all lived experience to the control of its condemning judgments. It makes of each individual a cripple, cut off from his or her body, a stranger to his or her own desires.

What I saw this week in moist and spasmodic reaction to the Dolezal affair was affirming of Guattari—which is to say, the outrage may have a great deal to do with repression, the condemning judgments may be designedly disruptive, assuring we will not talk about the provisional anatomies we’re forced to live under the flag of “norms”.

     

Dog in a Notebook

Every dog is a half open door leading to every other dog…

When I was small I thought about runaway dogs…our own dog, a mutt named “Woody” had vanished in the night.

I worried about him. And my father (who was an ascetic academic type, hence not very talkative…) told me a story about an elf named Mr. Bamboozle who lived in the woods and looked after all the lost dogs and cats.

Now I’m middle aged…the dogs come home or they don’t…but the ones who return shake all over with news of the Great Dog—like Schultz’s Great Pumpkin—the Ur Dog—the dog who perseveres in the woods…

Dogs: half open doors to dogs…and a hundred miles of moonlit woods…

Why Your Dog is Better than Most of Your Friends

I have lost my imagination much as Rousseau lost his dog—bending to flowers,

insisting on beauty in a strange land. Gentians for the philosophe!

Where has my Sultan gone? My fancy! (Foolish to have thought

he was as shunned as me.)

**

This is a game I play, much as some recall the batting order of old time baseball teams.

I think of men, women and their dogs…imagining their lives; seeing how they refer to my own.

I’m as lonesome as Rousseau. How I love my dogs. I stay with them long days fighting aleatoric and remote minutes, admiring how dogs defy death simply by ripping apart a grubby  hand towel.

Dogs. Temporal reductionism. Buddha Buddha. Woof. Scratch your ass on the rug.

**

I have lost my imagination. It was here, moments ago. I was thinking about unborn trees in the gloaming.

My imagination fell out of my pocket. Went down a storm drain.

But now the dogs are dreaming. They’re running under the earth, chasing St. John of the Cross who is gently on fire—that is, in the doggish underworld he’s not in pain.

You see how this works? Even when dogs are asleep and moving their legs, they’re better than friends or nation states.

Blind Among the Mannequins

My guide dog and I walked into a hat shop; a boutique; a room filled with tiny crescent hats on mannequin heads. To me they were splotches of color; weird as a Kandinsky painting, lovely. And there I was, a man in a hat shop with a dog. It began. The shop keeper wanted to know what I was doing there. She landed right in front of me like a jumping spider. She couldn’t say what she was thinking—”why is a blind person in my shop? Why is a blind person interested in women’s hats? Why would a blind man know any women? Why would a blind man have taste? Or money? Or curiosity? Most likely he is lost! Oh my God! A lost blind man has entered my little store! What should I say?”

Then the man terrified the hat woman by touching a hat. (Oh Lordy who knows where the blind man’s fingers have been?) The blind man, moi, saw a burgundy thing. It was a wide brimmed felt fedora the color of cranberries. His fingers caressed it. His guide dog admired him admiring the thing. It was a moment of small, contained, aesthetic pleasure. Nothing more.

“What are you doing?” asked the shop keeper. She fumbled her opening gambit—didn’t say “can I help you?” or “what are you looking for?” (She didn’t know if blind people “look” for anything…was it OK to say “look”—and maybe it wasn’t—so she said “what are you doing?)

“A fedora,” I said. “A mauve fedora!”

“Well, yes,” said the shop keeper.

(She wanted to know how I “knew” it was a rose-purple fedora but couldn’t ask. She imagined all blind people see nothing. This is a common presumption.)

“A mauve fedora,” I said again because I liked saying it.

“Mmmm,” said the shop keeper.

“Indifférence violet,” I said with a bad French accent.

The shopkeeper stared.

“Je veux acheter un chapeau pour mon chien,” I said.

“You want to buy a hat for your dog?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I want to buy her the mauve fedora.”

“Oh dear!” she said.

“I might decide to buy two,” I said.

“One for my wife, one for my dog,” I said.

We can be misunderstood and stylish. Two components made into a third thing in this blind life.

On Hearing B.B. King and Knowing It

Sometimes I play a mind game called “it is late or early for different people”—It’s hard to describe. Essentially it’s an exercise in appreciation. I try to imagine how much of life’s sweetness remains inside people. It’s a game of admiration. When I meet old acquaintances after years I see some have managed to keep their joy. They still have the “early” within them. You can play the game with anyone—eyeing strangers on a bus, sitting at a concert.

I heard blues legend B.B. King in live performance just once. He was playing a small club in Iowa City and I was lucky and got a ticket. I was smart enough to get there early and I grabbed a seat down front. This was in the 1970’s. I don’t think there was a single person of color in the audience. I felt badly about that. I sensed the qualified risibility of playing blues for favored people. But if Mr. King felt it, it didn’t show. He played and sang as if he knew everyone. And on that evening I figured it out—he had the “early” inside. The power of blues resides in what a singer won’t give away. “It’s bad out there, but you can’t have this!”  It’s why Leadbelly’s “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie” is so darned sweet. Bogart always had Paris but King always had “early”.

The thrill is gone, but I’ve still got first love, right here, under my ribs.